The End of ebooks?

Posted on September 9, 2017

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In its newsletter the publisher of one of my books cited the continuing popularity plunge in ebook sales and the increase (significant but not phenomenal) in paperback popularity. The newsletter also reported a decline in fiction sales and rise in nonfiction purchases. The publisher’s conclusion, similar to those of the Publishers Association, was that readers preferences have shifted, which may not be true.

Ebook popularity soared in 2012-2013. Self-publishing suddenly became inexpensive and easy. It was new, trendy; it made hundreds of thousands of books immediately accessible at minimal prices. Readers could buy twenty ebooks at 99 cents each for what one would pay for a single paperback. Sale of ebook reader devices soared. Many in the business predicted that print books quickly would become a thing of the past.

Then why the tailing off?

Supply and demand. Hundreds of thousands of first-time authors shoved ebooks into print, glutting the market, particularly in popular genre categories like romance, fantasy, supernatural. Manuscript preparation companies appeared overnight. Self-appointed marketers offered ebook-selling plans, most of which were ephemeral. Business was booming but when everybody wants a hula hoop, or cell phone, or pierced lip both prices and quality drop. That’s what happened with ebooks. Thousands of ebooks were distributed free, others downpriced to 49 and 99 cents.

Many ebooks, particularly those by first-time writers, weren’t professionally edited. Characterizations were repetitious; themes predictable. Readers had thousands of titles to pick from and as happens with other products when the novelty wears off those readers reverted to authors and/or themes they were most familiar with.

The sales figures reported by my publisher reflect dollar amounts, not the number of ebooks acquired by readers. Just as with print books, established self-publishing ebook authors with track records are recording sales increases. Quality not quantity is the determining factor. Ebooks are not driving print books off the market but neither are print books threatening their existence.

There’s no real evidence that fiction readers, particularly readers of genre fiction, are turning to nonfiction. Nonfiction sales have increased because more readers are seeking information not because former romance or urban fantasy addicts suddenly want to read about politics or Sri Lanka. An information void created in part by television and spurred in part by the internet’s disseminating a wide variety of articles, reports and opinions that spur curiosity and name recognition is more responsible for the increase in nonfiction sales, both as ebooks and print books.

Supply and demand. French’s has been selling mustard for over a century with highs and lows in revenues and production. Like mustard print books are here to stay, with variations in content popularity. Ebooks as well. Floodwaters reside to their appropriate level with few derivations marking the geography until the next flood comes along. Variations in supply and demand affect production and sales but business continues. In the long run quality wins out.

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